More library adventures, inspired by Nick Hornby (Or: Is Sycorax out of Control?)

I returned from the library again today with a haul so large I barely made it to the end of the walk home before collapsing. The muscles in my hands actually began to quiver and ache from the weight of the bags, and I crept along the slushy streets, pausing every 50 feet to lay down my delightful biblio-burden and assess my meager progress.

Here is the fruit of my struggles:

  • The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby - I am considering following up my "Year of Down Under" with 2008: A Year in Israel/Palestine (other forerunners for next year include Japan and India), so I might not get to this until then.
  • The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Under their Influence by Wayne Buchanan, a drama
  • The Reptile Room, the second in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • A mountainous pile of books seductively mentioned in Nick Hornby's addictive book (see below, and this previous entry)
    • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
    • Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square
    • Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell (many of Vowell's essays from this volume appeared originally on "This American Life," a show which I have somehow [??] never attended to. I have just subscribed to the podcast.)
    • Michael Ondaatje's memoir, Running in the Family
    • Tony Hoagland's What Narcissism Means to Me: Selected Poems
    • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman's teaching memoir
    • Tom Shone's Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, coupled with Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood
    • Don Paterson's collection of aphorisms, The Book of Shadows, of which this is the opening thought:
      Falling and flying are near-identical sensations, in all but one final detail. We should remember this when we see those men and women seemingly in love with their own decline. (3)
    • What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Oh my god. What good ARE they? I had better read this one fast, to avoid an existential crisis.
    • Christopher Coake's We're in Trouble: Stories
And after all this, two more books crept slyly into my life.
  • I saw a former student in the library and she gave me a copy of the play she is currently directing, Murder, by an Israeli playwright whose name (sadly) appears no where on my text. Would that I could remember what she told me about the author!
  • When I arrived home, a BookMooch package awaited me, covered in charming pictures of Idefix bouncing merrily on Obelix's belly. Inside, I found George Orwell's Burmese Days.
I haven't yet decided whether it should be a source of sadness or rejoicing that I keep bringing home such intriguing books before having addressed their predecessors and colleagues. In fact, of the last haul, I have only finished Nick Hornby's The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, which kept drawing me in against my will (and in direct opposition to my every attempt to read virtuous, dissertationy things). In his collection of columns from the Believer, Hornby achieves the perfect tone for a book journal/column/blog: a wry, blokey * version of Anne Fadiman's erudite humility in the face of her bookish oddity. You might at first be alarmed by his fondness for what he calls "Soviet style intervention in the world of literature" (180) - he demands, for instance, the immediate imposition of a quota for all books about writing - but the next month he almost always comes back, aching with contrition, repealing his former edicts and ready to lay down new ones. Each month also brings with it an acute anxiety about his own failings: he buys too many books, and reads too few; the books he reads aren't sufficiently erudite to represent him to the Believer-reading public; he wishes instead to be summarized as a human being by the mountains of unread collections of authors' letters he has purches; his library has come to represent him TOO well and now every book he picks up just seems so predictable. His is a style of reversals, of fictions and retractions, of egotism followed by self-abasement. And it makes for extremely entertaining reading.

Amidst all of these reversals, he manages not only to write very convincingly about why you must go out and read certain books immediately, but also to squeeze in some very sly, perceptive analysis. Take, for instance, his comments on novelist B.S. Johnson, whose biography he reads one month, as full of virtue as Pecksniff is of the butter of human kindness:

Johnson had nothing but contempt for the enduring influence of Dickens and the Victorian novel; strange, then, that in the end he should remind one of nobody so much as the utilitarian school inspector in the opening scene of Hard Times. Here's the school inspector: 'I'll explain to you... why you wouldn't paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality - in fact? ... Why, then, you are not to see anywhere what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere what you don't have in fact. What is called taste is only another name for Fact.' And here's Johnson: 'Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories is really telling lies.' Like communists and fascists, Johnson and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round. I'm glad that they both lost the cultural Cold War: there's room for them all in our world, but there's no room for Mystic River in theirs. And what kind of world would that be? (107-8)
I have never really been one to read literary memoirs, much less reflections on literature, but Fadiman and Hornby may just have convinced me. As Hornby remarks amidst his argument against literature about literature, a serious problem with writing so much about the act of writing "is, quite simply, that it excludes readers" (161). Three cheers for the resurgence of a genre of reader's literature.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (UK, 2006)
Nick Hornby

Even more adventures:
  • Wikipedia has pages on Nick Hornby and Anne Fadiman, as well as one on "The Polysyllabic Spree," an earlier (and, naturally, less complete) version of the book. This last page includes Hornby's lists of books bought and read for a number of the months he wrote the column.
  • LibraryThing has informative author pages on both Hornby and Fadiman. It is unclear to me why, in the absence of public domain pictures of these authors, there are instead question-mark-filled silhouettes of what appear to be characters from later Star Trek series.
  • Hornby's official website, brimming over with info, comes to us care of the kindly (and completely disinterested) people at Penguin:
  • Speaking of disinterested web strategies, you can buy or examine Fadiman's absolutely brilliant book about reading, Ex Libris, or Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (the earlier edition) at Amazon:

*Did you know that one suggested etymology for the British "bloke" (meaning "man" or "guy") is the Celtic word "ploc," meaning (I am so grateful for the Online Etymology Dictionary for this lesson) "large, stubborn person"?

2 Responses so far.

  1. I know what you mean about Hornby! I found virtually impossible to put the book down, and when reading him during my commute, I actually ended up laughing out loud on the train (rather embarrassing, I might add). He's always fun, and I'm glad to know that there is a more complete version of the Polysyllabic Spree out there. I'll have to hunt it down. He also has "Housekeeping v. the Dirt" for more essays if you're so inclined.

  2. Sarah says:

    I loved The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and Ex Libris as well. I'm afraid I've now developed a taste for the books-about-books genre- and even at my local Borders, the shelf is packed!

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